Reward anticipation - A powerful tool for game design

A neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of games has at its core the dopamin­er­gic reward sys­tem [1]. The nucle­us accum­bens, which is also dubbed the plea­sure cen­tre of the brain, is cur­rent­ly under­stood as the crit­i­cal brain region asso­ci­at­ed with the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter dopamine, which in turn is impli­cat­ed in habit for­ma­tion, reward-seek­ing behav­iours and addic­tion. The above video shows a speech from Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, where he dis­cuss­es his research con­cern­ing dopamine release in the brain when reward­ed and when antic­i­pat­ing a reward.

Something gam­bling machine design­ers and many game design­ers prob­a­bly intu­itive­ly know is that near-miss­es enhance gam­bling moti­va­tion. The release of dopamine tops out with near miss­es in gam­ing. Now, Prof. Sapolsky’s point in his slides is that in his stud­ies when par­tic­i­pants (or mon­keys) only get reward­ed 50% of the time that they put work into a task, their dopamine peaks much high­er than if they are reward­ed every time (and the spike lev­el is raised before the reward is received). He trans­fers his points to every­day exam­ples of peo­ple try­ing to achieve things that have a delayed reward (such as study­ing, rais­ing mon­ey to get a bet­ter house, mov­ing into your favourite retire­ment home, or final­ly being famous post death). Not only is this inter­est­ing in under­stand­ing what dri­ves humans to try and accom­plish basi­cal­ly any task, but also for game design­ers to use chance to their advan­tage in mak­ing games ever more excit­ing and moti­vate us to play (think epic items/armour in World of Warcraft).

If we strike a good bal­ance between giv­ing out a reward for a task and with­hold­ing the reward, the fuzzi­ness of cri­te­ria for deci­sion-mak­ing will like­ly increase per­son­al moti­va­tion. This could go fur­ther, too, in terms of val­ue assigned to rewards, things that are hard­er to achieve might gain an increased val­ue if they are not avail­able all of the time. Take a high-lev­el raid in World of Warcraft for exam­ple, where high-tier items will drop after defeat­ing very dif­fi­cult oppo­nents, but not every time enough items for the whole raid­ing par­ty will drop, so that peo­ple will stay moti­vat­ed to do this raid again. The ran­dom­ness of unique items drops is one of the pri­ma­ry replay fac­tors for games like Diablo and Torchlight, where lev­el con­tent is reused, but play­ers stay moti­vat­ed with the antic­i­pa­tion of gear­ing up with more high lev­el items.

Thinking about this moti­va­tion­al dynam­ic of ran­dom­ly achiev­able rewards, the ques­tion is what hap­pens once all con­tent is there, once the endgame is done? This is where the metagame of achieve­ments and tro­phies, and in a broad­er con­text, social recog­ni­tion comes into play. Once we have all the rewards a pro­gram or task can give us, we would like this work to increase our social stand­ing on a grander scale, to be rec­og­nized by peers and have mate­r­i­al to increase and enhance our social inter­ac­tions. This also ties strong­ly into social moti­va­tions for eth­i­cal behav­iour and reli­gious beliefs, as Sapolsky jok­ing­ly puts it, there might be a reward in the after­life wait­ing for us.


2 thoughts on “Reward anticipation - A powerful tool for game design

  1. Pingback: Her Story: interactive fiction is not dead – I Suck At Transmedia

  2. Pingback: Serious entertainment? An eGaming Dilemma. - Matthew Ovington

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